As you know at Back Seat Mafia we feature music of quality and distinction, well known and unknown, anything that has integrity…no pretenders. So when the chance came up to interview Gregory Porter, singer, songwriter and jazz ambassador, it was too good to pass by – the man is the real deal.
We talked to Gregory on WhatsApp ahead of the release on 28th August of his sixth album ‘All Rise’ via Decca Records/Blue Note. He had plenty to say about the album, his writing process, and the importance of music for us all in these turbulent times….
(The interview has been lightly edited for publication)
BSM: Hi Gregory, it’s great to be able to talk to you. With the new album coming out soon how are you feeling about it as the moment approaches?
Gregory Porter: Well you know that every artist now has to temper their emotions in a way because you make a record and then you have to wait some time before it’s released. I was ready to release this record several months ago but due to the situation and confusion quite frankly in the music business we had to delay the release. So yeah, I still love the record but for me after finishing a record, after coming out of the studio, I just want to go into the studio again and maybe make another new song.
But I’m ready for it to be released. I think some of the music pertains to the time and maybe, you know, could bring some uplift to some people – so I’m looking forward to the release, yeah.
BSM: So that positivity in the face of things was what you were aiming for when you were putting the album together?
Gregory Porter: Yeah it’s optimistic, that’s probably just part of my personality. I don’t have a pre-calculated idea about what the record is going to be and how exactly it’s going to shape up. Maybe this is going to sound crazy, but if I have a song in my heart, in my craw – or even in my notes – I don’t line it up for the next record and see how it’s going to go…I know when it feels like a full document and feels like it has meaning at that particular time. So if there is optimism there, if there is a feeling of love, all of those are just part of me in the moment, organically parts of me. So absolutely there is optimism there but organically so…
BSM: This record has come back to your song-writing after the last album, ‘Nat King Cole & Me’, was all covers. Did that just happen or was it a conscious decision?
Gregory Porter: Yeah it was a conscious decision. Although the Nat King Cole project was very much part of my life and feels like my music and the music of my family, that music solely belongs to Nat King Cole. So I did have an urge to get back to my own writing and the way my band expresses themselves, that’s what the itch was. For some of the fans as well, they enjoyed the Nat project, and recognised it was part of my foundation, but they wanted to hear utterances from the person who wrote ‘When Love was King’ or ‘1961’, ‘Liquid Spirit,’ or ‘Hey Laura’.
But in some ways this record has been the coupling of some feelings that came about in the process of making ‘Nat King Cole and Me’. Working with great orchestras, realising that they’re embellishing what I do emotionally with my voice, and the desire to combine the way that my band plays with an orchestra … I think the Nat project helped me think bigger in terms of adding an orchestra to my music.
BSM: So how do you manage keep a focus on the song within these big arrangements?
Gregory Porter: I think I have got the ability to compartmentalise. This being my original writing made it easier not to get taken away by the wave of sound and energy that an orchestra can be, but at the same time being elevated by the sound that an orchestra can be. I knew in terms of my dynamics, the highs and lows of a song, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the song based on the lyric. So that’s how I come to keep myself and my sound within the embellishment of many things going on around me, the orchestra, the choir…
BSM: I’ve read that you start off writing simply with the song, the melody, you at the piano, so did any of the tracks take on something different to how you first imagined them?
Gregory Porter: We had recording sessions in LA before we went to Paris and then we had another session in London so there was an opportunity to say ‘let’s revisit that’ to say ‘let’s see what it sounds like today after we’ve had a glass of wine’. You know each groove can be satisfying but then you settle on one and say yeah that’s it! In some ways playing with your friends you can do a bunch of brilliant things and anybody listening could be satisfied with all of them but we all understand as a group …so it’s kind of a group decision.
I gave myself more time to play through the songs more than once. It’s been in my nature to capture things magically as it comes off the spoon in a way and that is still true of me but sometimes even an old song like ‘Hey Laura’ can change its way the more we play it live. So I said let me accelerate that process by playing a new song several times in the studio and it’ll come to that live feel and let’s record that live feel. You know sometimes you have to wear in shoes for a little, well that was happening with songs on the album like ‘Phoenix’. In a way I think I gave myself and the band a bit of license to bring more of the rehearsal process into the studio.
BSM: You have always written about love and relationships as you do on ‘All Rise’ but in a very honest way. Why do you think that it is important to do that?
Gregory Porter: Every artist thinks they’re a genius but we are not created in a vacuum. The license is given to you by Bill Withers, James Brown, Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye – the idea of love and protest which I think is thematic in much of my writing. This kind of thing I have been given license to do by the masters. It’s the way that I fell in love with music and it’s the tradition of Black- American music and the tradition of the blues. So I feel like it is something that I should do and to be honest it’s cathartic for me- sometimes I write about things in a song that I don’t even talk about!
BSM: You also don’t shy away from social issues in your writing like on the new record in songs like ‘Merchants of Paradise’ or ‘Revival’. Do you approach those songs differently?
Gregory Porter: It’s interesting, intriguing to me to put a political song as personal. So on the track ‘Mr Holland’, the singer is suggesting that Mr Holland is fair and seeing me just as a regular guy, a nice young teenager. But the song also suggests that outside of that environment I am not being treated fairly or normally like a regular Joe…maybe I am a suspect and not a citizen…maybe I’m being looked at as different. It’s for everybody, it’s not just for me or a complaining or protesting group of black people, it’s for everybody to analyse and think about…
BSM: So you must be itching to play these songs live. What’s it been like for you just waiting to perform?
Gregory Porter: A couple of things- I feel like my heart is an automobile transmission in some ways because it is being on-stage that I usually need in order to work some of these things out. It’s my therapy but to be totally frank and human with you, right now this pandemic has done some real damage to my family and so my life and heart’s transmission is in neutral at the moment. That has actually been something that I needed to do….the process of healing myself after the death of my brother from this virus. I think the music will be essential, it will be very important for me but I think that this pause that I have had, and this time that I have had for reflection was necessary, not wanted, but necessary … though I am looking forward to getting out and playing these songs and being embraced by people and embracing people with this music. I don’t want to beat people about the head with this music. I want to uplift them with the idea of all of us being uplifted…all of us rising…That line just went together and I didn’t mean to do that!
BSM: You’d better write it down quickly before you forget. Thanks so much for being so generous and open with your thoughts. I’m sure that ‘All Rise’ will be a record that becomes a friend for many people over the coming months.